The broadest Ellis Act reform coalition in history was on display on February 24 at a Chinatown press conference announcing Senator Mark Leno’s legislation to stop speculator evictions. Leno, Mayor Lee, Assembly members Ting and Ammiano (an aide spoke on his behalf), Supervisors Campos and Chiu, and Mike Theriault of the SF Building Trades were among the speakers. But what made the event special was the presence of tech-giant Salesforce and the powerful speech on behalf of Ellis reform from sf.citi President Ron Conway, whose group of 800 tech companies is actively backing the Leno legislation.


Mayor Ed Lee speaking to media

Those despairing about Ellis Act evictions should feel more hopeful today as San Francisco unleashes a powerful legislative campaign to require a five-year ownership period prior to owners invoking the Ellis Act. Not only has Mayor Lee put the city’s mayor’s office behind Ellis Act reform for the first time, but the campaign has the vocal and politically influential support of the city’s tech industry, which has never before joined a campaign to protect tenants.

Tech’s Impact

Tech’s support for Ellis Act reform is no mere window-dressing. I spoke to Ron Conway before the media event and he was passionate about keeping the longterm tenants facing Ellis Act evictions in their homes. He publicly pledged the support of the huge sf.citi tech network and said to expect letters from individual tech companies supporting Leno’s bill.

Both Mayor Lee and Senator Leno highlighted tech’s support, and Leno quoted Salesforce CEO’s Marc Benioff’s recent Wall Street Journal interview in which he said, "The first thing is you can’t be throwing all these people out of their homes. They are using the Ellis Act during this unbelievable boom time, to toss everyday residents out of their homes. I think is unfair and I think it has to change. I think that our government, our industry leaders and everyday citizens — all three stakeholders — need to come together in a conversation and change that.”

Carmela Clendening, Senior Manager, Government Affairs, at Salesforce.com attended the press conference, and the company’s chief legal officer, Burke Norton, released the following statement. "We applaud Mayor Lee and Senator Leno for their strong leadership on Ellis act reform. It's time to stop unchecked real estate speculators from profiting at the expense of long-term San Francisco residents. Senate Bill 1439 is a great step in the right direction."

Tech’s support is vital because the anti-tenant argument that resonates most with moderate Sacramento Democrats is that legislation is “anti-business.” That claim doesn’t fly when San Francisco’s leading tech companies are pushing the Ellis reform bill.

Labor Support

Another unusual suspect in the Ellis reform coalition is the San Francisco Building Trades Council. Secretary-Treasurer Mike Theriault announced at the press conference that the Council had already endorsed Leno’s bill, as many of its members feel at risk from Ellis evictions.

Theriault said he was confident that the SF Labor Council would overwhelmingly back the legislation. Labor’s support offers the best chance of securing the vote of State Senator Leland Yee, a longtime labor ally who consistently votes against tenants.

Reason for Optimism

While the San Francisco Chronicle story on the bill noted that “some previous attempts to amend the Ellis Act, including a similar bill authored by Leno that would have required five-year ownership before allowing evictions, have failed,” prior efforts to reform the Ellis Act have also succeeded.

In 1999, Senator John Burton won key changes in the Ellis Act that prevented it from allowing demolitions and conversions of rental housing, imposed a one-year notice requirement for senior and disabled tenants, and allowed increases in tenant relocation payments.


Senator Mark Leno addressing the media

In 2003, then Assemblymember Leno won legislation exempting SRO’s from the Ellis Act. Just think how many SRO’s would have been demolished in the current real estate boom but for Burton and Leno’s actions.

I raise these past successes to deflate the mythology that Ellis reform cannot be won. And increasing its prospects is the inept response by opponents of the five year holding period.

As Dean Preston of Tenants Together described last week, the “Protect the Ellis Act” website created by the California Apartment Association is chock full of lies. Its homepage even declares, “The Ellis Act Protects Tenants.”

At the February 24 press event a group of primarily Asian-American protesters wearing face masks, with some affiliated with the Small Property Owners, held signs in Chinese and English and chanted to keep the Ellis Act “unchanged.” But when asked about their concerns a spokesperson said that they saw the legislation as forcing landlords to keep rents too low, which Senator Leno correctly observed was a complaint about rent control, not the Ellis Act.

In contrast to the bill’s opponents, Leno and Lee have already demonstrated the type of strong leadership necessary to carry this measure to victory. During our 2003 legislative fight to exempt SRO’s from Ellis I saw Leno’s perseverance and strategic savvy firsthand. Nobody will outwork or out prepare Mark Leno in this battle for Ellis reform, and if you know how Sacramento works, you know how important these qualities are.

Like Leno, Ed Lee is a very focused leader. He jokes about how boring he is because he never stops working on creating jobs, and his focus has shifted to Ellis reform and building more affordable housing. The Mayor, like Leno, will not take his eyes off the Ellis Act reform prize until Governor Brown signs the bill.

What Ellis Reform Backers Can Do

I strongly encourage activists to work in their neighborhoods to get merchant and business support. Create a form letter template for people to sign, or postcard, or use some other non-online method of letting the Legislature know that the small business community does not support speculator evictions. As noted above, few will try to defend speculator evictions, so opponents will claim a negative economic impact that support from small businesses can refute.

All messages of support for the bill should go to Senator Leno at State Capitol, Room 5100, Sacramento, CA 95814.

Supervisors Scott Weiner and Norman Yee also attended the press conference.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He describes the power of diverse coalitions in his new book, The Activist’s Handbook, 2nd ed.: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century